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A would-be 'Martyr!' searches for meaning in this wry debut novel


This is FRESH AIR. Kaveh Akbar is an Iranian American poet whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He's also written a book of poetry called "Portrait Of The Alcoholic" and now a debut novel called "Martyr!" Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A young man lies on a mattress in a room that smelled like piss and Febreze and asks God for a sign. He's asked this many times before, but this time, the lightbulb on the ceiling does something for a split second. It blinks or gets brighter. The young man, whose name is Cyrus Shams, asks for a divine do-over. He thinks to himself that he wants confirmation, like typing your password in twice to a web browser. Nothing. Nevertheless, Cyrus resolves to embark on a pilgrimage of sorts. After all, throughout centuries, faith has been grounded on less than the possible flickering of a lightbulb.

That opening set piece in Kaveh Akbar's debut novel, "Martyr!" reveals a lot about the artfully jumbled tone of the narrative to come, as does the jaunty exclamation point in the novel's title. "Martyr!" is wry, blasphemous, grim, grimy and moving, among other things. Akbar is a celebrated Iranian American poet who's chronicled his own battles with addiction. Like many debut novelists, he's fashioned his antihero, Cyrus, in something of his own image. Cyrus, too, is a poet, a recovering addict and an Iranian American. But as this novel progresses, we readers are beguiled into worlds far removed from the reach of Akbar's own lived experience.

Cyrus, we quickly learn, struggles with a legacy of violent, meaningless death. As a newborn, Cyrus lost his mother. She was a passenger on Iran Air Flight 655, an actual plane that was mistakenly shot down in 1988 by an actual Navy ship, the USS Vincennes. All 290 passengers on board that plane were killed. The Vincennes incident is one of those real-life tragedies that prompt many of us of a certain age to think, oh, yeah, the Vincennes incident. What was that again? But for Cyrus, a fictional inheritor of this disaster, his mother's death has shaped his entire life. It's at the center of his lifelong depression, or, as he calls it, the big pathological sad. It's like a giant bowling ball on the bed. Everything just kind of rolls into it.

Cyrus needs to resolve the age-old question of whether life, especially in the face of such random annihilation, has any meaning. Hence the importance of that possible lightbulb message from God. Because he's a poet, Cyrus's search for meaning involves writing a book of poems about martyrs, figures like the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands and the Tiananmen Tank Man and Malcolm X. Those poems are strewn throughout "Martyr!" along with a richly imagined mix of stories within stories narrated by a variety of characters. Among them are Cyrus's Polish Egyptian roommate and occasional lover, Zee Novak, and his father, Ali, who emigrated to Indiana with baby Cyrus and spent his life working on an industrial chicken farm.

Cyrus' pilgrimage ultimately takes him to New York, where he seeks out a dying Iranian American visual artist named Orkideh. Her installation at the Brooklyn Museum is called Death-Speak. Orkideh is living at the museum, where visitors are encouraged to line up and talk with her in the final weeks and days of her life.

"Martyr!" is so much its own creation that comparisons don't help. Maybe you could think of it as something of an Iranian American spin on John Kennedy Toole's comic picaresque "A Confederacy Of Dunces," wedded to Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," another meditation on a missing mother and the unpredictable power of art. Occasionally the sheer antic abundance of Akbar's storylines makes them read as though they were created primarily for the sake of contrivance rather than conviction. But his own poetic language never exhausts its appeal.

Early in the novel, Cyrus articulates for the first time his need to understand his mother's death. We're told that the words as they came out of his mouth gave shape to something that had long been formless within him, flour thrown on a ghost. What a startling way to describe the power of words, including so many of the words that Akbar himself throws onto the page with such precision in "Martyr!"

MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Martyr!" by Kaveh Akbar. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, New York Times White House and national security correspondent David Sanger. He tells us why the regional war in the Middle East that no one wanted is already here and why it may now be difficult to contain. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

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Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.